Tag Archives: #desiwriter

Coronavirus to Karunavirus

Feeling like the “wrong kind of doctor” (I have a doctorate in organization change), I initially felt helplessly inadequate in my response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Thinking of all the family, friends, and colleagues I knew who were fighting in the front lines of medicine, I questioned my career choice.  With the exponential increase in COVID-19 patients across the globe, what was I doing with my life?  

Instead of consulting, teaching, and writing, shouldn’t I have been practicing?  Thinking of the brave souls who practiced medicine, I wondered about my contribution.  To be sure, for big chunks of my career I had used my biomedical engineering background and my doctoral studies to guide leaders in healthcare, but when I asked myself what would Mother Teresa be doing, I recalled my meeting the saint a month before her death.  A life lesson emerged from that experience:  “We can lead best by serving the needs of our community and by following the lead of those we serve.”

So my heart turned to those I knew in healthcare – at Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, UW Health, UCSF, SF General, and Stanford Health Care – and I found my own way of serving them:  with compassionate and supportive listening.  I recalled a review I had written a decade ago about Dr. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for StoneThat India Currents review, titled “Hippocrates Made Human,” centered on the following question from this empathetic novel:  “Tell us, please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”

I realized that by being in dialogue with my family, friends, and colleagues, by sharing my words and listening to theirs, I could support those who were fighting the good war.  Finding my voice on email one early morning, I checked in with all those I knew who were fighting the good fight for my own family. Later that week, my wife (Mangla) and I looked beyond our own circle of healthcare providers and sent varying versions of the following email to friends whose children were at the front line:

Hello Friends

We’ve been thinking about you all and praying that all are keeping well.  

Here’s a note that we’ve sent to the many clinicians who take care of our family 

“Thank you for the outstanding care you always provide to our family.  During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, I’d like to also thank you for heroically being of service to all of your patients.  Please take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

We know that each of you has at least one family member or friend who has been similarly heroic.  Of course, we are all so blessed (or at least we hope each of us is) to be taken care of by doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, and the countless others (public health experts, researchers, biomedical engineers, administrators, supply chain clerks, et al) who serve behind the scenes.  A heartfelt thank you to all!

Friendship is truly a lovely word.  And words are keepsakes, keeping us close in good times and distressing ones.

And here is a word from Sanskrit that is always much needed:  karuna.  Given that we can all use more compassion in our lives, you might find of interest this website highlighting compassionate acts: karunavirus.org.

In Friendship … Mangla and Raj

Some responses came immediately as if from next-door kin:  “Thanks for sending this note, Papaji! Yes, [we] are staying healthy.  I’m trying to see the positives. [When we] go on our daily walks, I can’t help but be reminded that Spring is happening all around us. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the birds are chirping louder every day, my indoor seedlings are just about ready to be planted outside, and the air is cleaner.”

Some emails read as if they were Western Union telegrams – surgical sentences and grammatical errors suggesting distracted medical battlefield urgency:

  • “Thank you so much my friend … desperately needs this as it has been certainly overwhelming for all of us.”
  • “Will catch up soon … knee deep into COVID-19 as I and in our command center this and next week.”
  •  “So thoughtful of you to reach out … much appreciated … more careful response to follow.”
  • “Doing fellowship in Infectious disease at Stanford … warning … worst is yet to come … brace yourself.”
  • “Thank you … I hope you and the family stay safe.”
  • “In the front line now treating patients and attending on them … but praying and hoping for the best … work has doubled.”
  • “Thank you for this thoughtful note … I’m doing well (on nights right now, delivering babies) and have been in good health.”
  • “Coronavirus is causing a lot of stress for us … Stay safe and wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap for 20 seconds.”
  • “Thanks … that’s very nice of you to say.”
  • “Sorry for not responding sooner … keep waiting for a moment I can put some thought into my response … silly me.”
  • “Thank you very much for the thoughts, the support, and your friendship … hope you and your family continue to all be healthy … hope isolation doesn’t keep you from the grand baby!”
  • “Until calmer days…”

And then there were the responses from Dr. Megha and Dr. Pooja.  In these letters from two sisters whom my wife and I had known since they were little girls in frocks, I could hear the distant thunder of war against an invisible enemy:

Dear Raj Uncle and Mangla Aunty,

Thank you so much for your very kind words and touching email, and for thinking of us during these uncertain times. This has truly been a humbling experience thus far and I can only pray that this is soon behind us with minimal loss….

Best wishes,

Megha

*******

Dear Raj Uncle and Mangla Aunty,

Thank you so much for reaching out to me. 

That passage was really beautiful.

It made me feel hopeful about the future.

I am working in the ICU for a month and am grateful for the opportunity to learn from this pandemic and care for patients.

I am especially inspired by nurses and respiratory therapists, as they have the most contact with patients. 

Their bravery, compassion, and selflessness inspire me every day.

Wishing you and your family all the best now and always!

Pooja

*******

Gentle reader, even if you are not a doctor or planning a career in the caring profession, as a consumer of medicine you may be wondering about that question from Cutting for Stone:  “Tell us, please, what treatment, in an emergency, is administered by ear?”  Perhaps we can all embrace this universal response — “words of comfort.”

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, a Change Management Consultant working with clients across the world, has written this for all of those in healthcare, including his nephew, Avinash, the first MD in the Oza Family.

Tender Renewal of Spring

Spring has a charm, at once joyous and peaceful, almost unparalleled.

Over the last few weekends, gardens everywhere are coming alive with the tender palette of green and the skies put on their best shows of blues, indigo, saffron, and gold.

The birds that peek soon swell, open up in brilliant colors or earthy shades, greeting the sun and the wind, braving the rain, invite the bees and butterflies to dance around, hum and feed, and share. Cheery little hummingbirds join the dance, flitting and fleeting, lapping and tweeting, tiny arcs of sheen and energy, leaving us mesmerized as they find their nectar in the tiniest of flowers! 

Then there’s birdsong, tuneful, rhythmic, full-throated, right from announcing the arrival of dawn, singing for mates or for sheer joy, forming patterns in company, some bringing notes from other lands and seas and humbling with their graceful might!

The scents of the flowers vie with the riots of hues, some sweet, others emphatic, nonetheless unique to each, perhaps to woo the bees and butterflies.

And….. along come the critters that nourish the soil and garden, mostly at work unseen, at times wiggling and poking out of the rich, brown earth and looking surprisingly clean, smooth! Imagine if we’d had a dirt bath… how much of a wash it would take! There are the nifty hiders with legs aplenty, the husky rollers, the shelled footers who are so clever at their feeding, I almost want to leave them on the leaf or stem!

The nourishing clods, and grains, which with the added sun and rain create the magic of food as has churned on and been the source of energy for creatures large and small.

Vellai Pookkal (white flowers)

The freshness is intoxicating, never tiring, year after year. I wish I’d been keeping track of all that we’ve planted, thrived, liked, disliked over ever so many seasons – like the Algerian tangerine that I had the pleasure of going to a lesser-known nursery with our dear friend and children’s music teacher, Jane. I also learnt of the sprightly Peruvian lily from her, the leaves that have an earthy scent and flowers of happy colors.

More recently, our son planting and grafting fruit trees has given yet another purpose to our garden, with great variety and promise.

As the day moves on, the sun mercifully burns the fog, though the crisp mist and slight chill are refreshing to begin with. Soon the rays beat down on me, the jacket needs to be shed and sweat starts to bead up. I often realize only too late I’ve set out with no hat. I’m quite a mess… wind-blown hair, bronze tanning and sweaty trotting back and forth, clearing, planting, snipping, all the while being almost lost in the garden meditatively with great admiration for all things in nature!

At times it may not look a whole lot different, but the closer I look as the sun begins arcing down, the drier old branches are spread or out to compost, wilted flowers cleared, new plants or seeds in, some flowers, greens discovered, admired and my muscles, joints in a happy well-used tiredness! And certainly with hopes for seedlings to poke through!

Spring this year has a whole new meaning, one of gratitude, for the selfless frontline workers and scientists during this coronavirus pandemic, for loving families and friends, educators, food and farm workers and everyone who’ve been tirelessly adapting! It is one of hope and prayers for new, empathetic and well-reasoned beginnings!

Madhu Raghavan is a pediatrician who enjoys writing, exploring our great outdoors, gardening, and art as a pastime.

It Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

As I watched the Netflix documentary that follows Michele Obama’s book tour to promote her memoir, “Becoming”, I was reminded of a former American first lady who published a book while her husband was in office. 

When Hilary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, was first published, I read about it in the Washington Post. Intrigued by the unusual title, I wondered about her credentials to write with conviction about raising children. After all, she had mothered only one child. 

During the Clintons’ tenure at the White House, I was first a graduate student, and later, a postdoctoral fellow at a university not far from Washington DC. I knew nothing about motherhood and parenting. Judging Hilary Clinton’s expertise to write a book (that I had not read) was presumptuous on my part.  

About a year and a half later, as I cradled my newborn daughter in Silicon Valley, I asked a friend who came by for a visit – “How will I bring up this tiny baby into adulthood? I don’t know anything about parenting.”

A mother of a preschooler, she smiled knowingly and replied “Don’t worry, they come programmed to survive and grow. You don’t have to know anything.”

I heard her but did not believe her. I had devoured What To Expect When You’re Expecting, during my pregnancy. Knowing my penchant for turning to books for advice, someone had thoughtfully gifted me the sequel to help me figure out the first year of my child’s life. 

During my short maternity break, I could foresee how much more difficult my life would become once I returned to work. With growing demands on my body, emotions, and time, I wondered if I would lose myself as I slowly dissolved into the ocean of caregiving that is motherhood. 

Children consume you in ways few other things do. They coerce you, bind you, and trap you with their heart-melting smiles even as you change diapers and pick up toys innumerable times. Coming on the heels of years of infertility, for me, motherhood, like my Ph.D., had been a long-drawn project, a goal that I had desired and aspired for, and my child, the reward for my prayers and effort. 

In the two decades since that initial expression of doubt regarding my mothering ability, I have discovered, to my eternal surprise and gratitude, that I am just the string that connects every person who crossed my path and provided me guidance and assistance along the way to raise my child. 

Photo Credit goes to Taneli Lahtinen

This year Mother’s Day was especially poignant because, in a few weeks, that tiny baby who used to fit in my lap, will fly out of the nest and head back to America, the country where she was born.

I think back to the village of people scattered across the globe, who not only directly impacted her growth but also influenced my journey as a mother. 

Some, like my mother, Amma, held my hand in the delivery room and took care of me in the early days. Amma rescued me several other times when I was in a pinch for childcare, struggling to remain in the workforce. Always supportive, but not necessarily indulgent, she followed the ‘tough love’ style of mothering, long before the phrase was coined. 

Catherine, the gentle, silver-haired British lady who took over as the local grandmother when Amma returned to India, was the first person outside the home to bond with my child. Using only organic ingredients to cook fresh meals and creating personalized birthdays for the kids in her care, Catherine was a loving, no-nonsense woman. It was impressive how she managed to carve out time for self-care, swimming thirty laps in the community pool after a long day watching a handful of babies and toddlers. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Catherine for providing reliable childcare, the prime reason I was able to focus on my budding career.

Bill, my boss, who looked the other way when he saw me slouched over my desk in the early days of motherhood, first introduced me to a lunchtime yoga class, and later supported all of my part-time or flex-time requests, ensuring my progress through the ranks. I shudder to think of how my life would have turned out without Bill as my boss.

In California, a circle of women friends gathered around me to provide assistance to a working mother in a dysfunctional marriage. When I moved to India, another group of female friends came together in Hyderabad to help me find my feet as a single parent. Loaning me a gas cylinder when I moved into my own place, watching my child if I was late from work, accompanying me to court, or to the doctor’s office, many kind women propped me up. 

When handling everything alone felt overwhelming, I remembered the wise words of a colleague who told me at my baby shower, “Parenting is a series of threats and bribes.” 

When I doubted my decision to quit my well-paying job with long working hours and choose a freelance consulting path that paid less but offered greater flexibility, I remembered my aunt’s advice to make whatever minor changes necessary but to not give up my financial independence.

I am indebted to a large global network of individuals who have shared my journey as a mother. It has not been smooth. I have been far from perfect. 

From our shaky first steps in California to the rocky patch in India, and now in our new blended family in Singapore, motherhood has been a delicate dance. The two of us held onto each other, flowing with life as it detoured into uncharted territories. We are at a point where our paths must diverge. My time of intense parenting is coming to an end. 

The river of life will take her in its fold, whisk her to unknown destinations. But I will send her away with the confidence that there is a village out there, to pick up where my direct influence ends. Just as a village came together and sustained her thus far, I have no doubt that she will build another one for the next leg of her life. 

Even without reading Hilary Clinton’s book, I learned first-hand the powerful lesson embedded in the African proverb that she chose as the title for her book. It does take a village to raise a child. And I stand humbled by the experience. 

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Tea for Two

In Seeing Ceremony, Meera Ekkanath Klein’s sequel to her 2017 debut novel, My Mother’s Kitchen, the narrator, Meena, is now ready for college and continues to rebuff her mother’s need to subject her to seeing ceremonies in advance of formally arranging her marriage. The continuing obstacle is that Meena refuses to think about marriage until she returns home to Mahagiri, degree in hand, ready to begin her own life as an adult.

Her confidante and neighbor Mac, an elderly Scotsman who owns a tea plantation, is always ready to lend an ear and offer sage advice. However, reality enters Meena’s life when he reveals a friend is interested in purchasing Meena’s late father’s spice plantation. With the express understanding that the transaction will honor Meena’s father’s legacy, the money exchanged is Meena’s ticket to a college in California where her uncle is a professor.

During the brief pages devoted to Meena’s time at school, she studies agriculture, discovers Chinese tea, and embraces the calming concepts of the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies. It is then, in a flash of brilliance, that she understands creating a tearoom in which a variety of teas could be sampled and tea ceremonies would be held, maybe the answer to bolstering her mother’s remaining business.

On her journey home following graduation, Meena meets Raj Kumar, a young Indian businessman. They take an immediate liking to each other, and while at the airport in Singapore, they spend their layover time dining and chatting. As expected, neither can get the other out of their minds after going their own ways. Later, in a convenient twist, Meena and Raj come face to face again.

The bones of the story are good and hold promise, but much of the plot isn’t new. The seeing ceremony, arranged marriage, traditional vs. modern attitudes, and going to college in the U.S. are overused. Nevertheless, the elements of agriculture, introducing new crops, rotating crops, and bringing concepts from overseas are fresh enough to bring balance to the novel.

That said, this book should be a massive celebration of the senses, yet the ubiquitous spices, the meals prepared, the visit to a tribal village, and the vistas Meena experiences both at home and at her father’s plantation exist with an assumption that the reader is familiar with all of those essentials when sensual imagery would have enhanced Meena’s narrative and assisted in building her world. Instead, that part of the storytelling was incomplete, like a coloring book with pages half colored and abandoned.

On the plus side, Seeing Ceremony can be read as a standalone novel. It isn’t necessary to read My Mother’s Kitchen to enjoy this succeeding story. However, since the books are billed as novels with recipes, you may want to see what’s cooking in both. In “Kitchen,” the recipes are found at the end of chapters which, unfortunately, impede the reader’s flow. In “Ceremony,” the recipes are conveniently gathered at the end of the book.

If you’re in the market for a quick read that may take you away, introduce you to some interesting characters, tell a story of finding one’s way back home, and offer some recipes to spice up your next meal, this may be the book for you.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 


Seeing Ceremony: A Novel with Recipes by Meera Ekkanath Klein. Homebound Publications. 270 Pages.

You Are the Cake and More

“I start my day choosing happiness and being in the moment, as the mystery of the moment opens up to me” writes Geetanjali Arunkumar in her book, ‘You are the cake’. Such revelations that she arrived at through travails of illness and loneliness are what she shares in this debut work.

This is a book written from the heart and is a timely and gentle reminder to tap into our essence, even as many influences sap our energy and erode our confidence. A joyous, tasty metaphor for everyone alike, young, old and in-between, the title leaves open the door to accepting and enjoying who we are as individuals and build on that.

Accepting such a notion and not just thriving, but flourishing is the author’s message, one that she’s obviously been mastering even as she’s overcome inordinate challenges.

Right from the get-go the reader can realize that this author’s journey is one that many of us can relate to, even if the challenges may be varied in intensity. Reading on, one also realizes that this is not from a self-help guru, though we need guidance at times from one such, but from lived experiences and lessons learned through struggles.

As she aptly says, trusting the inner voice clarifies the action and path empowering one to make the right choices, be it of friends or partners, and other life’s decisions, big or small.

For many of us life rambles on, at times desultory and as Michelle Obama writes in, Becoming, of her good friends, ‘ Most of us lived in a state of constant calibration, tweaking one area of life in hopes of bringing more steadiness to another’, and ‘’You’re the cake’ offers a recipe for that.

I’m one for mnemonics and  “FACT-RE” as depicted by multiple layers of the cake – self- forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and trust, leading to respect and empowerment – is one I’ve begun remembering when I feel unsettled.

Original Artwork of Sravya Attaluri

Geetanjali then expounds thru’ the Recipe and Utensils used for cooking up happiness, emphasizes what seems obvious, such as hobbies, but often ignored, limited by our daily lives. 

The author quotes Muhammad Ali, “It’s the affirmations that lead to beliefs, and moreover once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”  Affirmations convert desires into reality, but she points out it’s good to be realistic about desires to begin with, and with time it will lead to greater things. 

Geetanjali provides tools like journaling, keeping a gratitude diary, or even tasks as simple as, when falling asleep ‘being grateful for the smallest things that happened during the day’ and, ‘ wak[ing] up in the morning using Abraham/Esther Hicks method of seventeen seconds of positivity and beauty.’ These soften the dissonance or even chime a song in our hearts!

Showing appreciation and acknowledging another person and being non-judgmental, as we’d like to be treated ourselves, strengthens the other and certainly builds lasting relationships.

I wish I’d had this book when I’d had an accident some long years back and was quite dispirited , but needing to pick myself back up, raise our toddler son and get back to work, with great support from my husband and loved ones.

There’s a Tamil proverb my grandma used to tell my mom, which roughly translates to, ‘only if you have a wall, can you paint a mural’. Only when we are kind to and take care of ourselves, can we be of support to others 

Geetanjali’s talents show not only in her writing style – such as, “…. Ways to unfold your soul, which whispers to you the truth of your gifts…” and inspiring thoughts, which are well-researched and informed, but also she accompanies them with lively and spot-on illustrations. This Bay Area author serves up the cake with swirls of decadence and pearls of wisdom on an inviting platter! 

Madhu Raghavan is a pediatrician who enjoys writing, exploring our great outdoors, gardening and art as pastime.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

5 years + 5 more = Marriage With America

The mantra of many Indians who left their homeland, for the longest time was – I will return to India in 5 years. The magic number 5 was almost unanimously agreed upon by many NRIs who moved to any part of the 5 of the 7 continents. Probably because only 5 were habitable, or because 5 years were enough to earn a degree, work a couple of years, and maybe even save $5K to get back home and start a new life! Whatever the reason, the promise was one of return to the motherland.

Back in the ’80s, college and job applications were non-existent. Applications had to be requested via regular postal mail. They had to be filled out by hand and mailed back. It was a time consuming and tedious process. 

The arrival of the acceptance letter was followed by a series of phone calls to family and friends, distribution of sweets, and a party where sometimes entire neighborhoods were invited. After the initial ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs, came a torrent of tears. 

As the departure day came close, the word ‘packing’ would send mothers in tears. Packing two suitcases with the maximum weight allowed was the most challenging and dreaded experience. Mothers wanted to pack not only clothes but food as well. In went processed condiments, homemade pickles, savories, and sweets. Fathers made sure documents, finances, and papers were in order. Suitcases were weighed, unpacked much to the dismay of mothers, repacked, and reweighed. After heated arguments, sobbing, complaining, cajoling, and hugging and making up, the final packing was done. And, after receiving a barrage of phone calls and reading numerous telegrams wishing ‘Bon Voyage’, ‘Best Wishes’, and ‘Happy Landings’, fatigue took over but sleep eluded, for it was the last day spent together before the great departure. 

Anita Mohan captures the University of Colorado in the 80s

 Upon landing on the new soil and clearing US Customs without any hassles, the migratory students adjusted to their new surroundings by flocking together. They forged bonds with other Indian students. From sharing dorm rooms, apartments, and even cars, to hunting for Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, places of worship, and procuring membership for Costco (earlier known as Price Club) they began their life here. All this coupled with coping with the new routine and rigor of academics, was the challenge of finding assistantships, on-campus jobs or other odd jobs to sustain a living. 

Calls to India in the late 1980s were $3.95 for the first minute and $1.95 for every minute thereon. Parents and students agreed that outgoing phone calls would be made only once a month and talk-time would strictly be limited to no more than 3 minutes max. Almost every phone call would begin and end with tears and sniffing on both sides. 

Letters to and from home would take three to four weeks to be delivered! (These were the days before the birth of the World Wide Web, Social Media, and Mobile phones) Aerograms or Airmails were used. USPS and Indian Postal Service were lifelines that held families together. Though the news and events (of birthdays, weddings, festivals, births, and deaths) relayed in the letter were long over, reading about them renewed all the excitement and also made one emotional. 

Mothers checked in to see how their fledglings were doing, but it was actually a double-edged sword to drive one on a guilt trip for making the decision to study/work abroad, though it was a point of pride for them as well. It was always – “a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend’s son or daughter has gone to study in the US and is doing so well, so must you.” 

The new students were in awe of the life here. Things that were unheard, unseen, and regarded as a luxury back home were basic needs here. Hot and cold running water 24/7, supermarkets carrying frozen breakfast and cut vegetables, ready to eat meals, shopping malls, washer/dryer, dishwashers, etc. was all thought to make life easy. 

After the initial awe, shock set in, Chores! They were required to be done! No mother to provide fresh hot meals, no vendor bringing the vegetable cart to your door, and no domestic helper to help you clean and do the dishes. Every single chore had to be done by the student! It was time for the juggling act. 

A brief period of stress followed graduation, the phase of changing the practice, a temporary F1 student visa into an applicable, permanent H1 work visa. Once that was settled, parents and students heaved a big sigh of relief. Parents proudly showed off photos of their sons and daughters, talked about their first car, H1 visa approval, and how they managed to find their first job. 

It was now time to get married and settle into family life. If one was in love, it was time to take a favorite cousin, uncle, or aunt into confidence and have them convince the parents. Perhaps the parents were open and there were no issues, otherwise, after a lot of reluctance and melodrama, permission for marriage was given. If there was to be an arranged marriage, it required word to be spread about prospective brides and grooms, alliances would start to pour, photos exchanged, and matches made. The groom would then proudly bring his bride to this country and after the initial struggles, begin to settle down. 

Once children were born, a new phase would begin. The free K-12 public school education, clean environment, excellent and prestigious universities for higher education, and so on acted as incentives to extend the 5-year dream. But soon the 5-year dream would be shelved, and a new dream, the vicious cycle of voluntary entrenchment would begin – obtaining a Green Card, buying a home, and becoming a citizen of the USA.

Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelance writer from Fairfax, Virginia. 

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Brown Skin Girl: From Broken to Beautiful

Prologue

1985

I will return to what I love. To music. To Evan. To my life in graduate school at Chapel Hill. To Beethoven’s Opus 110, Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Haydn, and Mozart’s Concerto in C Major. To my graduate recital and concerto competition next year. To my cozy attic apartment on Tenney Circle. I will return. Soon. I just need to hold on for three months.

I’ve been chanting this mantra since yesterday. 

Since everything shattered like a crystal bowl.

I must talk with him one last time.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I tell Amma, my mother, after we check in at Delta Airlines at JFK airport in New York. I walk purposefully to a pay phone some distance away where, hopefully, she can’t see me. 

I check the flight monitors. Only an hour before we board. JFK’s as crowded as a farmer’s market and I weave my body, brushing a shoulder here and there, through the rush of travelers to get to the bank of phones. Announcements of departing and arriving flights, snippets of conversations in New York, Southern, and California accents, German, Hindi, and Chinese swirl around me.

My hands tremble as I pick up the receiver. I imagine him waiting anxiously in his Chapel Hill apartment, his lean face and lithe body strung out as he paces tight as a wire in his two rooms. From the corner of my left eye I see Amma, in black polyester pants and a maroon baggy sweater, watching me like a hungry cat. She won’t give me a minute alone. I twist away so I don’t see her. My eyes sweep over crowds of other Indian travelers reminding me, with irritation, that I’m one of them.

My fingers press the cold steel numbered buttons. My tongue, dry with worry and determination, tastes metallic and sticks to the roof of my mouth.

Evan answers after one ring. 

“Hi, Evan,” I say in a rush.

“Hi, love.” His honey-like tenor is taut. The sound of him is home. “I’m so worried about you. Are you really going?”

“It’s only three months. We can do it. You know we can.” I imagine his brown eyes, his arms around me. I need to hold on to this moment, to his voice, to us.

“Of course. But don’t you see? They won’t let you come back.”

“They will. They can’t take me away from my education!” Our family’s god is education. Amma always made sure I went to the best schools. Though she loves a beautiful home, my parents did without much furniture when we immigrated six years ago so they could pay for my college tuition.

“I don’t trust them. Don’t leave, Mytrae! Can’t you go to the bathroom and flush your passport down the toilet? Or throw it in the trash?” 

“Amma has it with her. There’s no way she’ll give it to me.”

“Walk away, then. Don’t get on that plane, whatever you do, love. Do something, anything.

His frantic voice makes me doubt myself. But this is the only way I know. Do what I don’t want to ultimately get what I do want. They said if I stay in India for three months and still want to be with him, they’ll let us be together. Just like they made me minor in Computer Science, when I wanted to major in music. I sigh, winding and unwinding the metallic phone cord around my fingers. 

He’s not Indian. He doesn’t understand how we need our parents’ permission for everything.

My shoulders tighten with decision. “I’m doing this for us. I’ll call and write to you while I’m there. They’re announcing our flight. I have to go. I love you, Evan.” 

“Always remember, I love you,” he says slowly, deliberately, like he wants me to really know it. And hold on to it. “Goodbye, my love.”

“Bye, Evan.” I hang up, lean my forehead against the pay phone. Three months will be unbearable.

I walk back to Amma, feeling the thick rope between us and beyond us. It ties us to Daadi, my grandmother, then spools century upon century through my female ancestors to the very beginning of time. It wraps and knots around my waist, and hangs heavy, like lengths and lengths of six-foot saris. It binds us. It defines us. However different we all are, because of it we are the same.

I stop two feet from Amma. Her body relaxes with relief, but her mouth turns down with disappointment and disgust. 

Guilt and shame twist me. 

I’m here, my eyes tell her. I’m ready. I hate you, but I’m ready. 

We turn, without a word to each other, and walk towards security.

* * *

I lift my head groggily from the tray table. The screen shows our jet crossing Afghanistan into Pakistan toward India.

“I can’t bear to face Daadi with this news.” Amma breaks our strained silence. She glances at me then turns away. I got only a couple of hours sleep the night before so I’ve slept most of the thirty-some hours from New York to Hyderabad, waking only for water and orange juice. I haven’t been hungry since they found out about Evan. I can hardly feel. Let alone speak or eat. 

My mother looks haggard, the ever-present dark circles under her black eyes even darker. Shaking her blue-gray asthma inhalant, she puts it to her thin lips, inhales sharply, then rests her head back against the seat and closes her eyes. The gray roots in her short black hair look more pronounced from that angle.

It’s not that bad, I think. People fall in love all the time. Is it so shameful? I turn my head away from her, burrowing into the navy blue pillow. Her asthma always trumps every situation, and I feel the familiar tugs of guilt, pity, and resentment I did as a girl when she wheezed or had an attack. I don’t want to hear her feelings—I’m too overwhelmed by mine. Why should my life be interrupted to convince her and Naina, my father, of my love for Evan? I’m furious about their power over me. And even more furious at myself for bowing to it. I want my own life. I want to make my own choices. I look around at the mostly Indian passengers. I don’t want to be like them. Married with babies and boring careers. The last thing I want to be is a dutiful daughter. 

A dutiful Indian daughter.

Two years ago, the summer after I graduated from Wake Forest, I stayed in India with Daadi and Thatha, my grandparents. They were so proud of me then. Will Daadi shun me now? I avoid the thought. Surely, Thatha won’t make much of it at all, Westernized and broad-minded as he is. After all, he studied at Cambridge and education is everything to him. They love me, and Thatha’s proud that I’m studying music. They won’t treat me the way she is. Thank goodness Roshan Uncle and Leela Aunty, who live next door to my grandparents, are broad-minded. They’ll brush it off like a fly. And I will return to what I love. To my music. To Evan. And my life.

Soon.

Late and jet-lagged we arrive at Hyderabad airport, the dust, heat, and maelstrom that is India greeting us. Amma and I barely look at each other as we pass through customs, collect our bags, and are driven to Daadi’s and Thatha’s home, weaving through bustling, honking thoroughfares crowded with cars, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, and cattle-drawn carts. We are in India, the land of my birth, the city of my childhood, winding through timeless byways of my ancestors.

This is an excerpt from Mytrae Meliana’s (pronounced “my-thray-yee”) just published memoir ‘Brown Skin Girl: An Indian-American Woman’s Magical Journey from Broken to Beautiful‘. She is an award-winning writer, spiritual teacher, speaker, and holistic psychotherapist. She leads workshops for women who desire to heal from trauma, liberate themselves from patriarchy, connect with the Divine Feminine, and create true, bold, inspired lives. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Facebook|Instagram|Twitter